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U.S. silent on a dangerous game of chess in the East China Sea

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Gregory Copley, Global Information System

A Sept. 25, 2012, maritime incident at the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — ostensibly between Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) maritime elements and Japanese Coast Guard vessels — enabled Beijing to score a timely strategic success in defiance at Washington’s proposed “Pacific pivot” strategy to consolidate its strategic position in Asia and the Pacific.

Taiwanese vessels and Japan Coast Guard patrol ships in Japan's territorial waters on the morning of Sept. 25, off Uotsuri Island (top), one of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, in a photo from a Kyodo News plane.

What occurred with the incident seemed to be merely a showdown between ROC fishermen and Japanese Coast Guard cutters, which resulted in the fishing vessels breaking through the Japanese CG cor-don and entering within 2.1 nautical miles of the islands (ie: well within the 12nm territorial waters claimed by Japan) before leaving. Both Japan and the ROC claimed that the incident would not be allowed to damage ROC-Japan relations.

But what was evident was that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and PRC Coast Guard deployed five patrol ships which merely sat on the 12nm line off the islands, in a de facto act of support for the ROC’s action. Effectively, then, Beijing supported the ROC’s action as that of “China”, while the U.S. could not act at all. This forced the ROC unwillingly — and perhaps subtly — away from its Japan-U.S. allies and into the perceived protection of the PRC, which it did not seek, and the claims of which to the Diaoyu islands (as they are known on the mainland) are opposed by Taipei in the same way that Taipei opposes Japan’s claims.

The U.S. was forced into a situation where it was forced to remain silent between its two allies, Japan and the ROC, but bringing the time nearer when the U.S. will have to determine whether, in fact, its treaty obligations to Japan include support for Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus as opposed to merely acknowledging Japanese management of them, given that sovereignty of these islands has yet to be definitively clarified. They are claimed respectively by Japan, the ROC, and the PRC, although the PRC’s claim is essentially based on the PRC being the successor state to the ROC (in terms of its occupation of most of China) in a situation in which the ROC — the pre-PRC Government of China — still exists.

Moreover, the islands — occupied by (or under the military umbrella of) Japan for 117 years — have traditionally been in a fishing ground for Taiwanese-based fishing fleets, given that they are closest to Taiwan (ROC) of all the claimants (they are appr. 120 nautical miles [220km] northeast of Taipei). The islands have historically been regarded as Chinese, and were essentially only under Japanese control when Japan occupied Taiwan (then known by its Portuguese name, Formosa). Historical documents going back centuries — to the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) — showed the islands as key elements of the Chinese trade route to Japan, and they are on the mainland continental shelf. Even Japan, when it occupied Formosa before and during World War II, acknowledged that the Senkakus were the fishing ground of Formosan (Taiwanese) fishermen, and not Japanese fishermen.

While fisheries interests are significant — and historical — elements of the dispute, it is also clear that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), there are extensive hydrocarbon deposits around the eight islands in the East China Sea basin, particularly the Xihu/Okinawa Trough. There are parallels, and some overlap in players, between the East China Seas disputes (of which the Senkakus are possibly the principal one) with territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The incident which finally played out on Sept. 25, 2012, however, was almost a set-piece drama in which — by the time it occurred — each of the participants played a rôle which defied the possibility of variation, but with the result that the ROC and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could claim a measure of strategic progress, Japan received a setback, and the U.S. was marginalized. Possibly the only player which could have avoided risk was the Japanese Government, which essentially triggered the incident in mid-September 2012 by purchasing three of the Diaoyutai Islands — the Senkakus, as they are known in Japan — from a private owner (the wealthy Kurihara family) for approximately U.S.$25.1 million, using the word “nationalize” to describe the acquisition. Japanese Government sources have subsequently acknowledged that the Government’s attempts to suppress Japanese nationalist activities to assert sovereignty over the Senkakus actually ignited the issue. The Government had bought the islands in a bid to forestall a similar, and potentially more provocative, move by the conservative and nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, to buy the islands from the Kurihara family.

Japan’s action, in fact, polarized the long-stagnant East China Sea Dispute, and caused the ROC fishing fleet from the Suao port (in Taiwan’s northern Yilan county, where a considerable portion of the ROC Navy fleet is also based) to sail to the island chain — not for the first time — to demonstrate their historical claim to the fishing grounds. [Fishermen from Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture have also had traditional use of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku fishing grounds, but the distances and unfavorable ocean currents worked against them.]

As much as anything, the incident highlighted the fact that ROC President Ma Yingjeou had, on August 5, 2012, at a ceremony commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Peace between the Republic of China and Japan, unveiled his East China Sea Peace Initiative, calling upon all countries to peacefully settle disputes and jointly develop the East China Sea’s resources.  Ma reiterated that Senkaku sovereignty belongs to the Republic of China despite claims by the PRC and Japan. It remains to be seen if China or Japan will accept Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative, a true test of Ma’s foreign policy.

Ma, in his August 5, 2012, statement, called on all parties to refrain from aggression, to shelve their differences, to maintain dialogue, to observe international law, and to resolve the dispute by peaceful means. All sides should, he said, also seek consensus on a code of conduct for the East China Sea, and establish a mechanism for cooperation on exploring and developing resources in the region. All parties concerned should,  Ma said, admit the existence of the dispute, while pursuing peaceful means to resolve it. Significantly, Japan had, until the dispute flared to a public confrontation, refused to acknowledge that there was a dispute over sovereignty.

Equally, there had been no acknowledgment of the Ma Initiative until the Japanese steps to acquire ownership of three of the islands (as opposed to sovereign management or nominal national control of them) from the Kuriharas because of internal Japanese nationalist issues.

The PRC, meanwhile, carefully managed its part in the process so that it essentially put the ROC discreetly even more at odds with the United States, the ROC’s nominal principal military ally, and at odds with Japan, by forcing Washington into the position of having to support Japan through treaty obligation and showing that the ROC seemed to be under the protection of the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN). The result reinforced Washington’s abandonment (and internally perceived need to be rid) of the ROC as an impediment to the Obama Administration’s moves to placate the PRC.

Significantly, the set-piece drama was played out on a day the PRC was demonstrating its growing ability to project maritime power: the new PLAN aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (ex-Soviet Navy Varyag) (CV-16) (pictured on page three, at its commissioning), was commissioned into service in Dalian, northeastern China, on Sept. 25, 2012. [The principal air power component on the Liaoning is the J-15B Flying Shark fighter, the naval variant of the J-11, with a reinforced structure and undercarriage, as well as folding wings, to allow J-15 carrier operations; and using all Chinese-developed avionics, radar, and composite materials, and armed with PL-12 Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM), PL-8 WVRAAM, YJ-83 (C-803) anti-ship missile, and a large variety of PRC precision guided missiles.]

But the East China Sea dispute over the Senkakus was an operation in which every actor played the lines which could have been assigned by Beijing: from Tokyo, to Taipei, to Washington, DC. Some of the lines were public; some behind the scenes. But the end result was that Beijing was strengthened, and Taipei was left in some ways having to demonstrate that it was not more — as a result of the incident — at the mercy of Beijing. And while the Japanese Government understood what had happened and attempted to play down differences with Taiwan, Washington seemed neither to notice nor care that the ROC was being neutralized. Indeed, Washington clearly wished to be rid of the seeming obligation it had, for historical reasons, to the ROC, and the more that Taipei stressed its loyalty to Washington, the more Washington wished to be rid of it.

Neither U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta even mentioned the ROC (or Taiwan, given that Washington has abandoned even recognizing its old treaty obligations to the “Republic of China”) in recent policy statements regarding the U.S. “Pacific pivot” and the U.S.’ allies in the Pacific. Now, it is probable that the U.S. will need to carefully acknowledge the ROC position on the Senkakus if only to avoid further polarizing the debate between what could become a unified “China” position on the one hand, and Japan on the other.

By late September 2012, there was, for the first time, a noticeable sector in Japan calling for the Government to manage the dispute process in a way which would minimize problems with neighboring states. A group of some 500 leading Japanese figures had already signed a document, which would, when more signatures had been collected, be presented to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s office on October 18, 2012. At the same time, on Sept. 28, 2012, in an attempt to minimize damage from the “no-win” situation, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M. Campbell said that the U.S. would not play a mediating rôle in the dispute over the Senkakus.

Significantly, the move by ROC  Ma in August 2012 to announce the East China Sea Initiative, and the subsequent reaction to it by Japan, came as the ROC made another significant move back into the international arena — from which it had largely been isolated as a result of PRC and U.S. actions — by hosting the international Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) annual conference in Taipei on Sept. 24-25, 2012. Some 21 countries participated in the forum, which was strongly supported by the ROC ministries of National Defense and Foreign Affairs. Participants of the SLOC forum, including this writer, also met with  Ma and were briefed on the East China Sea Initiative and on the then-current Senkaku confrontation.

The confluence of events ensure, then, that the Ma Initiative may now move to center stage, even if only as a mechanism by which concerned states with grievances in the East China Sea (PRC, ROC, Japan, and the Republic of Korea [on the Takeshima/Dokdo Island dispute]) could shelve sovereignty claims and work on cooperative measures to exploit and manage ocean resources without having to address sovereignty.

President Ma’s initiative is one of a few new moves by the ROC to transform its diplomacy and positioning, given the shock to Taipei of Washington’s very pointed exclusion in its “Pacific pivot” posture of any reference to the ROC/Taiwan as an element in the Asia-Pacific framework, let alone as a key U.S. ally, which it was once perceived to be.  Ma — himself a former ROC Marine — has moved quickly and discreetly to begin instituting a new maritime strategy for the ROC, gradually replacing (against U.S. pressure) the primacy of the ROC Army in the strategic-security policy thinking in Taipei.

However, the ROC is now delicately placed strategically, and the new U.S. strategy for the region shows that Washington has literally forgotten Taipei as the Obama Administration has placed all its efforts on placating Beijing and Tokyo.

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